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Fiery calls to action at UN climate summit don’t win pledges from worst emitters

Days after global protests calling for climate change action, the United Nations held a special climate summit where world leaders and other officials gathered to hammer out specific pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. William Brangham joins Judy Woodruff to discuss whether action will come from the talks, the lack of U.S. leadership and activist Greta Thunberg’s fiery admonition.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, in fact, just days after global protests calling for action on climate change, there was a special U.N. climate summit today where a number of leaders gathered to hammer out specific pledges from their nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

    William Brangham is here now to look at some of the pledges and the realities of where things stand.

    Hello, William.

    So, remind us again of, what is the climate science that is driving all this?

  • William Brangham:

    The U.N. put science very prominent in advance of this meeting.

    In fact, they put out a new report yesterday that tried to summarize all of the science that we know today, and none of it is really good news. Let's take a look at the key findings here.

    The world is quickly getting hotter. We just had the warmest five-year period in recorded human history. The planet has now warmed over 1 degree Celsius since the industrial era.

    And the impact of this warming, the climate impacts, are hitting harder and sooner, greater and longer droughts, intensifying storms, more crop failures, more species threatened with extinction.

    And the report also says that the CO2 emissions that are driving all of this are increasing, and there's no real end in sight in how much of this we pump into the atmosphere.

    The report said that, in order to limit warming to just two degrees Celsius, which is a threshold that many scientists have warned about for a long time, that global policies have to triple in scale.

    So this report comes out. And then today, the secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, in order to emphasize the importance of this, said, the science is clear, action is needed.

    Let's listen to what he had to say.

  • Antonio Gutterres:

    Science tells us that our current path, we face at least three degrees Celsius of global heating by the end of the century.

    Someone asked me the other day, doesn't all of this make you despair? My answer was a clear and resounding no. I am hopeful. And I am hopeful because of you. This is not the climate talk summit. We have had enough talk. This is not the climate negotiating summit, because we don't negotiate with nature. This is a climate action summit.

  • William Brangham:

    This was the message all day today: Time is not on our side. The time for action is now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So how did — are all these countries around the world responding? Did they come together today? Are they making pledges that will get to these goals?

  • William Brangham:

    In short, no, they're not.

    There were a lot of intermittent promises made. I mean, for instance, China, who is the world's largest emitter of carbon emissions, they said, we are currently meeting our goals as set out in the Paris accord. Many people point out those were very modest goals. And they said, well, we're hitting those.

    They didn't offer anything bolder. India said it's going to ramp up its share of renewable energy, but didn't really talk about the fact that it is hugely reliant on very dirty coal energy.

    Germany said it would spend $60 billion to ramp up spending on renewables. A lot of other countries, though, some of the other major emitters, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Australia, were not there, partly because they were not invited unless they were willing to come forward and make a big announcement.

    Many smaller nations did say, we will take steps to get towards net zero emissions, which is what the science seems to be indicating. But, again, they contribute a very small slice of the pie.

    Some of the interesting pledges that were made were made by cities, made by states, made by companies, agricultural companies, and big transportation companies, but still an enormous way to go.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But what about the United States government? What role is the U.S. playing in all this? Were they present?

  • William Brangham:

    They were present in the sense that, originally, President Trump was not going to show up. He did, surprisingly, show up and he sat in on the talks for about 10 to 15 minutes, and then left.

    Largely, in terms of leadership on this issue, the United States is AWOL. We know that President Trump has said he has no interest in the Paris accords. He has actively embraced policies that cut emissions.

    And his leadership, the U.S.' leadership, which was so central, especially with regards to China and to getting them to sign onto the Paris accords, is largely absent.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And finally, William, these global protests we have been watching over the last couple of days, last week, more today, led by so many of these remarkable young people, you spoke just a few days ago with Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist.

    What role are they playing in all this?

  • William Brangham:

    You're right, Judy.

    A lot of this — all of that action we saw, an estimated four million young people taking to the streets all over the world last week, those were largely driven intending to make leaders today step up and take action.

    And Greta Thunberg, this young Swedish activist, the 16-year-old, who is largely credited with being the voice of this movement and the genesis of this movement, she spoke today.

    And I have to say, I have seen her talk in many, many different kinds of venues. Never have I seen her so upset and so emotional.

    Let's take a little bit of a listen to what she had to say today.

  • Greta Thunberg:

    This is all wrong. I shouldn't be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope.

    How dare you?

    You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is the money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.

    How dare you?

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • William Brangham:

    This is the challenge of this movement. You have a moral voice like Thunberg and all of these millions of young people saying action is required.

    Does that movement have the sustaining power to move against what are the well-defined and well-established and very entrenched interests of a lot of nations who have all sorts of reasons for not acting? That's the essential tension here. Does that moral call sway these very, very big forces in society? That's the essential question.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it feels so much like a generational conflict, doesn't it?

  • William Brangham:

    It does.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    William Brangham, thank you so much.

  • William Brangham:

    You're welcome.

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